Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - How your world works -

At most US filling sta­tions cus­tomers are pump­ing fuel with a 10 per cent mix of ethanol made from fer­ment­ing the sug­ars in corn. The bio­fuel blend re­duces green­house gases, but it can slowly cor­rode your en­gine and blends poorly at higher ra­tios. Bu­tanol is an ideal ad­di­tion to gaso­line. It’s easy on your en­gine and blends bet­ter-how­ever, it’s more ex­pen­sive to man­u­fac­ture. But re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol in the United King­dom have de­vel­oped a cat­a­lyst, a sub­stance that speeds up chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, that turns ethanol into bu­tanol, us­ing beer – also made of fer­mented sug­ars – as their model.

Pro­fes­sor Dun­can Wass says his group wanted to find a cat­a­lyst that worked with an ethanol fer­men­ta­tion broth, an early step in ethanol pro­duc­tion, be­cause it would be sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper to con­vert to bu­tanol. But the mix­ture of ethanol, wa­ter, and un­fer­mented sug­ars con­tains other chem­i­cals that can po­ten­tially stop the cat­a­lyst. When they at­tempted to buy broth to test their cat­a­lyst, they found pro­hib­i­tive health and safety re­stric­tions. “Our in­dus­try part­ners said ‘Why don’t you try beer? It’s lit­er­ally the same mix of ethanol, wa­ter, and un­fer­mented sug­ars,’ ” says Wass. The team then suc­cess­fully used the cat­a­lyst to con­vert a pale lager (pic­tured), an IPA, and a Bel­gian ale into bu­tanol. For the record, says Wass, no beer will be wasted in in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions of the cat­a­lyst.

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